Aishwarya Rai Bachchan: From Bollywood royalty to queen of Cannes
Aishwarya Rai Bachchan has taken over Cannes. The word on the Croisette is that the world’s most beautiful woman is in town, and everyone wants to get a glimpse of her.
The locals lining up against the barriers of the red carpet outside the Palais des Festivals peer into the glittering world of the stars who descend en masse on their otherwise sleepy, seaside town. They tell me in their lilting French accents: “We don’t know much about Bollywood, but we’ve come to see the beautiful woman from India, Aishwarya.”
They may not have seen her movies, but the French people know and love Aishwarya and have embraced her as their own. Cannes has been unfaltering in waging a love affair with Aishwarya that has lasted 13 years, and today that romance is in full bloom. When she takes to the red carpet, it’s as if the whole city has come to a standstill. Everyone else is eclipsed by her presence, and one way or another Aishwarya makes headlines. Bollywood royalty in India, she is also the undisputed Queen of Cannes.
We’ve been meeting Aishwarya here for the last 10 years. It’s like an annual date, and the festival experience wouldn’t be the same without her. These days, she’s as much a part of the film festival as the red carpets and the coveted Palme d’Or.
Aishwarya’s journey to Cannes involves much more than an 8,000 mile round trip and 10-hour flight across the Indian Ocean to the stunning locales of the Riviera. So many key milestones of her life have been played out at Cannes. It’s an association that began when she arrived with Shah Rukh Khan for the premiere of Devdas in 2002, the first time that a modern Indian film and its superstars were afforded the prestige of a grand red carpet screening at the world’s most renowned film festival.
It was then that Aishwarya was first approached by L’Oréal Paris to represent their brand. It’s given her an international platform and a profile to represent her country and its cinema, and Aishwarya has basked in the spotlight ever since. She has stopped traffic in Cannes, her face adorning billboards and bus stops lining the entire stretch of the Croisette, and in return for the prestige afforded her, her commitment to the brand is evident.
“I just feel like I’ve belonged to the L’Oréal family forever right from the beginning,” she says. “Here it feels like home turf completely, because the synergy has been seamless. For me my relationship here of course began with the festival because it started with Devdas. The relationship with L’Oréal was soon thereafter, and they go hand in hand as far as the emotional connect is concerned.
“I knew I was happy to come on board because of the voice of the brand. It’s a brand that is interested in celebrating a woman for who she is, beyond the surface level. ‘We’re worth it’ – the statement is recognizing a woman for who she is. You are encouraging her empowerment, you are encouraging her voice in announcing herself, in announcing her conviction, and that to me has always been the larger voice.”
In 2003, Aishwarya also had the rare distinction of becoming the first Indian woman to serve on the prestigious Cannes jury and, leading the charge of the Bollywood brigade, she has opened the way for her peers to follow in her footsteps.
In 2007, there was cause for excitement for entirely different and personal reasons. Aishwarya was in Cannes for the press launch of Madhur Bhandarkar’s Heroine. She had already shot the first scenes and the poster artwork, but as she stood on the jetty posing for photos for the press, there was something a little different about her; a fullness in the face and a glow of contentment. It was later that we discovered that she was in the first flush of pregnancy.
Aishwarya necessarily bailed out of the movie – but in view of the lackluster reception of Heroine when it was finally made with Kareena Kapoor in the lead, it turns out it was no loss at all for Aishwarya, while becoming a mother was her greatest gain.
“Motherhood. It’s been the most blessed aspect of my life,” she says. “I have discovered the definition of love. Being a mother is exemplary. You don’t think about how that might affect your career.
“Whenever I think about taking on work and feel I can accommodate and multi-task, I have and I do. On a lot of levels I was working with my endorsements and my brands right through my pregnancy and even for the first three or four months after – and I’ve been working throughout this year.”
Aishwarya made a return to Cannes for the 2012 festival, just months after giving birth. Her arrival prompted headlines the world over and opened up a public discussion that centred around her post-pregnancy weight.
Her husband Abhishek leapt to her defense, while Aishwarya remained defiant and took to the red carpet, unashamedly embracing the many natural facets of motherhood. All credit to her that she was undeterred in fulfilling her commitments and yet made motherhood a priority over the obligatory photo call. In 2014, Aishwarya came back to the Croisette again, silencing her detractors by turning up on the red carpet in a gold Roberto Cavalli gown that brought Cannes to a standstill.
Aishwarya Rai attends ‘Deux Jours, Une Nuit’ premiere during the 67th Annual Cannes Film Festival
13 years since her first descent on the Riviera, and we’re back again. What’s it like to meet Aishwarya? Well, it’s well documented just how beautiful she is – that’s inescapable and a given.
She glides in on a hot day looking cool and unruffled in a Stella McCartney ensemble, and towers over everyone in her vertiginous heels looking more svelte than ever (and apparently blessed with the gift of eternal youth). And yes, her eyes are as blue as the Mediterranean Sea. Every time you take her photo, you can’t help but stop for a moment to marvel at it.
You’d think Aishwarya would be used to compliments, but she still gets coy and tries to brush them off. But don’t be fooled by her perfect looks – Aishwarya is also a startling keen intellect who can disarm you with her forthright opinions and erudition.
She’s a complete chatterbox, which makes your job easy if you’re interviewing her, and she’s also very giggly. While other celebrities skulk past you in the corridor and avoid eye contact, Aishwarya greets every person she meets from her drivers, to her security guard Franck (“who’s family”), her fans on the street, the media and her fellow celebrities, with the biggest smiles and the warmest hugs.
It’s not all pretty frocks and photos at Cannes, though. Aishwarya joins forces with Salma Hayek and Parker Posey for a UN ambassador’s debate on gender equality. She’s been a champion for the rights of young girls in India – and here, in front of the world’s media, she has the perfect platform to address the issues close to her heart.
Meanwhile, the Indian pavilion is swamped with media waiting impatiently for her arrival to talk about Jazbaa, her first film in four years. She makes a stunning entrance in a maroon Oscar de la Renta gown, and later strikes a pose on a yacht. This year in Cannes has been a sartorial success, and Aishwarya’s red carpet looks have won praise even from the unforgiving Indian media.
Of course, Cannes also affords a chance to catch up with her celebrity friends and L’Oréal counterparts. There’s a lot of rubbing shoulders with celebrities, including Eva Longoria, who Aishwarya has forged a ten-year friendship with.
“It’s nice to experience that [sense of reunion] at the Cannes platform with a lot of my colleagues and media friends that I have got to know over the years. There’s a lot of media friends that we get to catch up with after a year, and then there are lots of designer friends and stylists. We keep saying that another year has flown by and here we meet again.
“It’s great to see what each of the L’Oréal women are doing,” she adds. “We are brand ambassadors, but with our own roles and multifaceted lives. We are always eager to bring a more meaningful voice within the areas that we are working on, and share our experience. While the world out there doesn’t imagine that’s what we do, and that we could be friends, actually we are.”
I first met Aishwarya the day after she won Miss World at the age of 21. While we ponder with disbelief how quickly the years have flown by and contemplate her illustrious Cannes story, you wonder about the young woman she was then, making her first tentative steps into the film world and later thrust onto the international platform at Cannes. What would today’s Aishwarya, with all her experience and understanding of the highs and lows of a life in the public eye, want to say to the fledgling actor that she was then?
“That’s deep. I don’t even realize the time that has flown by and that’s a good thing,” she says. “I don’t know what prompted me to think the way I did back then, but good on Aishwarya back then for making the choice that I did.
“My life has flown by with a lot of work done, a lot of work to do, a lot of varied experiences, which I think is wonderful. I’m glad I thought the way I did. After Aaradhya turned three I felt like I could take on more work, so I agreed to do a couple of movies this year.
“There’s Jazbaa. We’re more than halfway through it. Then I’m doing another movie with another renowned director/producer, Mr Karan Johar, and just before coming here I agreed to work with another very respected director, Sujoy [Ghosh], and also Mani Ratnam.”
But even for an in-demand movie star there’s time to play, especially when you’re the mother of a 3-year-old. Indeed, Aishwarya was in playful form on the red carpet, photo-bombing her fellow celebs and flouting the selfie ban to take personal snapshots with partner in crime Eva Longoria. And today Aaradhya, who has been coming to Cannes with her mother since she was six months old, also gets to take her first steps on the red carpet and those personal moments all add to the excitement.
This year the actress, who hasn’t yet embraced social media, hijacked the Paris L’Oréal Twitter account for a day to share a snapshot of her life in Cannes. In a series of candid videos we learn a lot about her: she reveals that she and her daughter managed to sneak out onto the Croisette with the help of her security for ice cream and a spin on the carousel; she confesses that while she might be required to put her best foot forward on the red carpet, that’s not going to stop her indulging her taste for croissants; her favorite song is ‘Happy'; and she believes life is primarily about having fun.
“As long as work excites me and interests me, then I definitely intend to carry on doing it,” she tells us. “The focus is that. But I really believe in living in the moment. You give your best to whatever you take on and then you just enjoy your life.”
Warm, confident and endlessly charming, there’s no doubt that the people at L’Oréal picked the right woman for the job. And every year, the Cannes Film Festival is enlivened by Aishwarya Rai Bachchan’s presence.
In the words of L’Oréal, yeah, she’s worth it. But the nicest thing about Aishwarya is that she reminds us that we all are too.